Writing for the Web

You’ve probably read Jakob Nielsen’s 1997 article, How Users Read on the Web. If not, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Check out the table that he shows with various approaches to the same content. It’s amazing indeed to see how the bulleted lists and concise content make such a huge difference.

If you see long paragraphs, are you inclined to read every single word? Studies show that you probably won’t. Readers tend to scan text on the Web.

So what does that mean for your Web site or your client’s Web site? Take a look at your main page (or your client’s main page).

  • How scannable is it?
  • If people scan through the page, will they pick up the most important elements that you want them to see?
  • Or is your important message buried in long paragraphs?
  • Is your text finely tuned and concise?

Don’t Make Them Yawn and Leave

Here are some terrific guidelines from Nielsen’s article to make your copy far more readable on the Web. I’ve repeatedly seen them work effectively.

". . . Web pages have to employ scannable text, using

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion.
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing"

How To Edit Your Writing

The Web Content Style Guide by Gerry McGovern, Rob Norton, Catherine O'Dowd Gerry McGovern generously provides a sample chapter at his site from his book, The Web Content Style Guide. His sample chapter, Writing for the Web, goes into detail about how to write for the Web. I especially liked his suggestions in Editing yourself where he provides insightful and helpful tips for how to edit your writing, how to look at it from a different approach, and ideas to help that happen.

Content and Search Engines

If search engine placement matters at all, consider how you can incorporate keyword phrases into your content, too. Your main page is especially important. One of my favorite sites for writing effective copy that the search engines will love is High Rankings. Heather Martin is an expert in this area, and she generously shares lots of ideas, insight, and tips.


During the next week or two as you cruise around the Web, pay special attention to how you read whatever page you visit. See what works and what doesn’t, and keep those things in mind for your own writing.

  • Where do your eyes seem to go automatically?
  • What do you find interesting?
  • What do you actually stop and read versus yawn and click to the next page?
  • Whose writing do you especially enjoy reading and why?

More Resources

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